It’s a counterintuitive conceit: the more confident you are in your ability to win a fight, the less likely you are to get into one.

But that’s what Wilmington police officer Christian Marshall says he has seen in the field since the department started requiring new officers to train in Brazilian jiu-jitsu last year.

The martial art eschews punches and kicks and focuses on taking opponents to the ground, using submission holds to defeat them.

“What we see all too often is the untrained officer, when someone’s in their face, raising their voice at them, the officer gets overwhelmed,” Marshall told me during a session at the department’s training facility, “and not knowing what to do, they go from a zero to a 10.”

Wilmington Police Department officers train in Brazilian jiu-jitsu to reduce violent interactions. (WPD)

Marshall, who’s been an officer for a decade, has been training jiu-jitsu for about three and a half years, and he practices a lot. But he can “count on one hand” the times he has actually used those techniques in the field. That’s kind of the point.

But Marshall recounted a situation where it was necessary, one that demonstrates a maxim many law enforcement officers have reiterated, often in frustrated response to media coverage: There’s no such thing as an unarmed suspect in a fight if the cop has a gun.

“I had an incident about half a year ago, where as I was trying to take this guy down and take him into custody, he was reaching for my gun,” Marshall told me. “Thankfully, my holster did its job.”

A different holster, even a different angle, might have meant a more dangerous outcome–even a deadly one. Marshall said his training was what allowed him to avoid that potentially lethal outcome.

Now, there are a lot of factors that lead police officers to kill people, armed or not. There are also a lot of things that have been suggested to help reduce those police shootings, like more mental health professionals who can respond to emergency situations, a better mental health care system overall, or better de-escalation training for officers. Other big-picture proposals include reducing police reliance on firearms or implementing stronger gun control measures, and addressing the systemic causes of poverty and crime. 

Requiring jiu-jitsu training isn’t going to change the violence that seems inherent in American culture today and, thus, in American policing. 

But many proponents of the martial art point to Marietta, Georgia, a city about half the size of Wilmington where the police force introduced and eventually required jiu-jitsu training for its officers in 2019. Before it became mandatory, the city analyzed its 2020 data on the outcome of police interactions and compared officers who had been trained in jiu-jitsu and those who had not. That analysis found 48 percent fewer officer injuries, a 53 percent reduction in suspect injuries when force was used, and 23 percent fewer Taser discharges.

Marietta’s jiu-jitsu program is not without critics, according to The Marshall Project. That includes those who suggest the training could inspire officers to seek out confrontation, and those who say the available data isn’t robust enough to account for other variables. But the city has inspired others to follow its lead. 

Wilmington started its jiu-jitsu program in early 2021 when a few officers approached the chief about giving it a try. In the first year, about 12 students went through the program, and the following year, the department incorporated it as part of yearly training.

Data so far show some decrease in officer injuries. Use of force was down year-over-year between 2020 and 2022, but this year’s figures appear on track to be higher:

  • 2020: eight injuries, 155 uses of force
  • 2021: 10 injuries, 192 uses of force
  • 2022: 11 injuries, 137 uses of force
  • 2023 (through late August): two injuries, 128 uses of force

It will probably take more time to really know if the department’s training is making a difference. It will also take more than the department’s current requirement, which is 20 to 25 hours for new recruits and four hours a year of ongoing training across the department.

Marshall acknowledged that’s enough for officers to “get their feet wet,” but it will take ongoing buy-in from officers to keep them competent, calm, and confident. 

“This is very much a perishable skill. So the more you do it, the better you’re going to be, the more confident you’re going to be,” Marshall said. “The less you do it, obviously, the more likely you’re going to forget the techniques, and it not be utilized correctly in the field.”

Benjamin Schachtman

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The Sunshine Tax

The higher the cost of living, the higher the wages, right? Sort of–unless you live and work in a prime tourist destination, and employers, consciously or unconsciously, hit you with the sunshine tax. 

The, you’re-lucky-to-be-here tax. It’s not a real levy, and it hasn’t been formally studied, but it refers to the idea that you get paid less to work near the beach.

Last week, Wilmington chamber CEO Natalie English asked UNC Wilmington economist Mouhcine Guettabi whether the concept was still around. Guettabi was answering questions at an economic outlook panel where he shared data showing Wilmington-area wages have been increasing at a higher rate than the state and nation. 

“Is the sun tax gone?” English asked, recalling how when she took her job, she was told she wouldn’t make as much because she’d be closer to the beach and it’d be worth it. (English was named to Wilmington’s top chamber job in 2017, after serving as chief public policy officer for the Charlotte chamber.) 

The short answer, Guettabi explained, is no. The area, like the nation, has seen wage increases, but that has mostly been concentrated in industries like leisure and hospitality. Wilmington’s economy has always had an outsized presence in these sectors. 

So while the numbers may make it seem like employees in Wilmington have enjoyed major gains, non-tourist-dependent sectors haven’t seen as much of a windfall.

–Johanna F. Still

Town Hall: WHQR, Port City Daily, and WECT are hosting an election forum next Tuesday featuring council candidates for Carolina Beach and Kure Beach. Another forum on October 27 will feature Wilmington council candidates.

WECT’s Jon Evans will moderate both events, which will be held from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Cape Fear Community College’s Union Station. Submit questions for candidates online here.

Around the Region

Field of Dreams: Before Brunswick County backed out of plans to help bring a minor league baseball team and stadium to Leland, the town ordered an economic feasibility study. The StarNews reports that the town will soon share the results of that study

Neighborly Education: Pender County is moving ahead with plans for a new school to alleviate overcrowding, and neighbors aren’t stoked about the projected traffic shifts on N.C. 210, Port City Daily reports. 

Hawk Hike: UNCW is considering raising its tuition fees for out-of-state and graduate students for the third year in a row, Port City Daily reports. This comes as the university system remains under a now eight-year undergraduate tuition freeze.

Around the State

The Heartbreak of College Suicides

High-achiever Ben Salas was one of seven N.C. State University students who ended their lives last academic year. His devastated family has no idea why.

Challengers Sweep SECU Election

People across the country have been watching the rare contested board election at the country’s second-largest credit union.

Time and Tide Times Two

Two books take on the changing state of the Outer Banks.

Public-Private Pitfall

A failed attempt to include affordable housing in a downtown Wilmington mixed-use development highlights the complications of big ideas in cooler economic times.

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